Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Do Those Numbers REALLY Tell You

I am always fascinated about how certain industries, and publishing is certainly included in this, are always fascinated by numbers and statistics. What I find is even more fascinating is how many seem to find answers in all of these numbers. The problem is that, too often, these numbers really don't tell us much, especially when it comes to the publishing industry.

Let debunk, or at least add some questions to this whole mix of things.

Agents stating the number of submissions they receive
I love this number. What are we really talking about with the number of submissions. Are we talking about all the inquiries and/or emails we receive? Are we counting this with the number of books? How about the percentage of requests vs rejections? If we just look at the later amount, I have to say that number gets a little daunting when you consider how many submissions an agent might receive for projects they simply don't represent. This is a rejection. What about repeat submissions? Are some of these people being counted in the grand scheme of things because these were after revisions, or a secondary submission? This is not to say the numbers are off, but simply that a number of submitted materials is simply that. A number. You even have to consider the types of projects that are coming in. Are they all fiction, or are some non-fiction? You cannot extend those numbers to strictly your genre.
Discussions of the amount of sales in a given area
Anyone who has read a royalty statement understands the complexity of this issue. Foreign, electronic, discounted books, or the one I love, "free books" are frequently added up. Now, while these do count as sales, there are a lot of variables to play with here. Were the books even sent to a certain book store or a country? It doesn't mean the product didn't sell, it was simply unavailable.
The Average advance for a company
I love this one. There is always an attempt to demonstrate how certain companies pay out more than other companies. The problem though is that in most cases, these are just reported numbers. Along the same lines, if you have someone with an exceptionally high advance (most likely an established author) that alone blows "the average." Must be careful of this.
Number of hits on a website
Anyone working with websites can figure this one out. Even if you personally update your website and then go to see if it looks right just got factored into that hit count. Along the same lines, every time a search bot comes into contact with your website, it is tracking things. Sure it can look impressive but again, this says nothing about the popularity of the site.
Agents speaking of huge contracts or the number of contracts
This one connects back into the submission argument we talked about earlier. Huge contracts can come from a lot of factors. Hearing that the author was a first time author with his or her first book does not mean it was in your genre. Heck, it could be Snookie. She was a first time author and look at those numbers! Was the author a multiple NY Times Best Selling author? This too could be a factor. Simply put, unless you know all of the variables on this, the contract value means nothing.

I think the big thing I want to stress is to not get hung up on the numbers. Statistics are simply a way of figuring things out IF you know all the variables and apply the numbers properly.



  1. Great point! I have one blog post that always has more views than any other post. I think it's pretty funny and a good topic, but the number of views just didn't make sense...there certainly weren't high numbers of comments or followers to back it up. I finally figured out it was a picture of a UFO in the post that was getting all the hits!

  2. The numbers can be overwhelming, particularly the number of submissions (which are staggering, no matter HOW you count them!). It can be disheartening to any author who chooses to be a needle in that haystack!

    But I also find it encouraging in that, with such fierce competition, a rejection is not necessarily a reflection on the quality (or lack thereof) of my writing. It enables me to take that rejection less personally and just keep on trying.

  3. People love numbers because they give a quick reference to much more complex information. The same goes with averages. That is why I like to say along your cautionary lines: There is no 3.5 on a 6-sided die. ;-)